Jesus Our Lover: Margery Kempe, Gregory the Great, and Lyric Poetry

Welcome to Part Two of the Lent 2021 series, “The Many Faces of Jesus.” The version of Jesus today is “Jesus Our Intimate Lover.” Be forewarned: medieval people were not squeamish about exploring erotic language as a way into thinking about union with God. So you might want to save this blog for a moment when your kids are not reading over your shoulder.

Rome, 1414. An Englishwoman is on pilgrimage. It is Saint Lateran’s Day, and she is in the Apostles’ Church. This woman’s name is Margery Kempe. She is a middle-class brewer, and married with many children. Margery has had many visions; right now the Lord is speaking to her. And by the way, Margery has a great habit of calling herself “this creature,” so in this passage wherever you encounter “this creature,” she is referring to herself.

Also, the Father said to this creature, “Daughter, I will have thee wedded to my Godhead, for I shall show thee my secrets and my counsels, for thou shall dwell with me without end.” Then the creature kept silent in her soul and answered not thereto, for she was full afraid of the Godhead and she knew no skill of the dalliance of the Godhead, for all her love and all her affection was set in the manhood of Christ and thereof she could understand well and for no thing would she have parted from it. She was so attached to the manhood of Christ that when she saw women in Rome bearing children in their arms, if she might understand that they were man children, she would then cry, roar, and weep as if she had seen Christ in his childhood. And, if she might have had her will, oftentimes she would take the children out of the mothers’ arms and kiss them in the stead of Christ. And, if she saw a handsome man, she took great pains to look at him less than she might have seen him that was both God and man. And therefore she cried many times and often, when she met a handsome man and wept and sobbed full sore in the manhood of Christ as she went about in the streets of Rome, that they that saw her wondered a lot, for they knew not the cause of her tears.

Margery Kempe, translation mine from The Book of Margery Kempe, edited by Lynn Staley, 35.

Margery has a wonderful way of jolting you out of any complacent understanding of marriage to Christ. The marriage of the church to Jesus has been a popular metaphor for the church’s relationship with God from the very foundation of Christianity. We are used to it. Margery’s colorful language fantastically brings back to us the strangeness, the radical nature of the idea of erotic love between Creator and created. She herself is shocked at the idea of marriage to the Godhead when she is so in love with the earthbound body of Jesus. Margery here negotiates her very real, erotically-tinged love for Jesus the Man with God as a whole. She understands this marriage as expanding her love of God, to the Trinity and the Second Person’s humanity and Godhead. 

Margery next tells us that she does indeed wed the Godhead, with saints and angels in attendance. Did you catch the word “dalliance”? Margery worries that she “knew no skill of the dalliance of the Godhead” because all her affection is attached to Christ’s manhood. In Middle English, “dalliance” has a twofold meaning: it can indicate cultured, intimate, or spiritual conversation. It can also mean a sexual or sensual encounter. And yes, Margery consciously draws upon that double meaning! In this divine marriage, Margery follows Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena, and other famous medieval women writers who wed Christ, the Trinity, or the Godhead. In fact, she draws upon an enormous and influential tradition of using sexual love very personally in order to explore aspects of union with God, union of wills, Christ’s longing for us, and our yearning for him. 

One could argue that the favorite book of the Bible in the medieval church was the Song of Songs. You might find this focus on the most sexual book of the Bible rather surprising. Medieval people were not strong on human sexuality. This is actually an understatement. The majority of medieval thinkers considered all expressions of human sexuality somewhat corrupted, if not outright sinful. Sex within marriage was acceptable at best, meant to release a particular form of human embodied weakness safely without sin. So it may shock to discover that the image of Jesus as our Lover—intentionally using the language of human sexuality and intimacy to portray our relationship to Jesus both as the church and as individuals—was popular in the medieval church. Neither was it the equivalent of medieval hippies who loved the language. Gregory the Great, the influential theologian and pope from 590-604 AD (and the guy whom the “Gregorian chant” is named after), sums up well the attitude of monastic writers towards the Song of Songs:

For allegory supplies the soul separated far from God with a kind of mechanism by which it is raised to God. By means of dark sayings in whose words a person can understand something of his own, he can understand what is not his to understand, and by earthly words he can be raised above the earth. Therefore, through means which are not alien to our way of understanding, that which is beyond our understanding can be known. By that which we do know—out of such are allegories made—divine meanings are clothed and through our understanding of external speech we are brought to an inner understanding. 

Thus it is that in this book, called The Song of Songs, we find the words of a bodily love: so that the soul, its numbness caressed into warmth by familiar words, through the words of a lower love is excited to a higher. For in this book are described kisses, breasts, cheeks, limbs; and this holy language is not to be held in ridicule because of these words. Rather we are provoked to reflect on the mercy of God; for by his naming of the parts of the body by which he calls us to love we must be aware of how wonderfully and mercifully he works in us; for he goes so far as to use the language of our shameful loves in order to set our heart on fire with a holy love.

Gregory the Great, from Eros and Allegory, by Denys Turner, p. 221.

Gregory comes off as a little begrudging at the end. But the focus of this section, and the part that later folks ran with, is the first bit of that paragraph—that the numbness of the soul may be caressed into warmth, that bodily love and spiritual love meet in the Incarnation and person of Christ. Gregory’s words fed a very important and influential monastic tradition of reading the Song of Songs. Today we don’t care for reading the Bible allegorically, so we tend to miss out on the Song of Songs as an aspect of understanding God’s love for us. Yet the idea of Jesus as our intimate lover was prevalent across multiple traditions of reading and living: the monks writing doctrine and practices of spiritual discipline who produced endless commentaries on the Song of Songs as model of love between Jesus and the church, the mystical and contemplative figures, like Margery Kempe, who experienced the bodily ecstasy of visionary encounters, the laypeople who heard and wrote poetry about Jesus as their “lemman,” the Middle English word for lover. 

Gregory and Margery both focus on how they have been kindled by erotic imagery. Medieval writers also emphasize on the equivalent in Jesus, his passionate yearning for us. They emphasize the reciprocity of desire in this relationship: Jesus longs as much for us, even more than us, as we do for him. Baldwin of Ford, a twelfth-century archbishop of Canterbury, wrote that Song of Songs 8:6, “Set me as a seal upon your heart,” echoed Christ’s longing for us: “Love me as I love you. Have me in your mind, your memory, your desire, your yearning, your sighing and your sobbing.” This vision of Christ sometimes merged with contemporary romantic ideals of love. Let’s listen to a late medieval English poem from an anonymous writer. I have taken this excerpt and modernized it from One Hundred Middle English Lyrics edited by Robert D. Stevick.

In the vale of restless mind
I sought in mountain and in mead
Trusting a true-love for-to find
Upon a hill then took I heed;
A voice I heard (and near I yede [came])
In great dolour complaining though:
“See, dear soul, my sides bleed,
            Quia amore langueo [Because I swoon with love]
 
Upon this mount I found a tree;
Under this tree a man sitting.
From head to foot wounded was he,
His heart blood I saw bleeding;
A seemly man to been a king,
A gracious face to look unto.
I asked him how he had paining:
He said, “Quia amore langueo.
 
“I am True-Love that false was never;
My sister, man’s soul, I loved her thus:
Because I would in no way dissever
I left my kingdom glorious;
I purveyed her a place full precious.
She flitted, I followed, I loved her so
That I suffered these pains piteous,
            Quia amore langueo.
 
My fair love and my spouse bright
I saved her from beating and she hath me beat;
I clothed her in grace and heavenly light:
This bloody shirt she hath on me set.
For longing love I will not let [cease].
Sweet strokes been these, lo!
I have loved ever as I hette [promised]
            Quia amore langueo. 
 
I crowned her with bliss and she me with thorn;
I led her to my chamber and she me to die;
I brought her to worship and she me to scorn:
I did her reverence and she me villainy.
To love that loveth is no mastery;
Her hate made never my love her foe.
Ask then no more questions why,
            But quia amore langueo.
 
…
 
In my side I have made her nest.
Look in, how wide a wound is here:
This is her chamber, here shall she rest,
That she and I might sleep together.
Here she may wash if any filth were;
Here is succour for all her woe.
Come if she will, she shall have cheer,
            Quia amore langueo.
 
I will abide til she be ready;
I will to her send though she say nay;
If she be reckless [without care] I will be ready,
If she be dangerous [disdainful] I will her pray;
If she do weep then bid I nay:
My arms are spread to clasp her to.
Cry once, “I come,” now, soul, assay,
            Quia amore langueo. 
 
…
 
“My sweet spouse, let us to play—
Apples been ripe in my garden;
I shall thee clothe in new array [clothes],
Thy meat [food] shall be milk, honey, and wine.
Now, dear soul, let us go dine—
Thy sustenance is in my bag, lo!
Tarry not now, fair spouse mine,
            Quia amore langueo…

This anonymous poet portrays Christ speaking to us. He marries the language of romances, of knights pining for their lady love who rejects them, with the imagery of the crucifixion. Love and pain are inseparable; this knight is lovesick and wounded. He bids the soul, his lover, to bed, she rejects him. He waits. Many medieval writers use the imagery of Christ on the cross, arms wide open, waiting for embrace. Even homelier, he wants to take his beloved on a date: “Now, dear soul, let us go dine…” Listen or read it again if you wish, and pick out your favorite lines that speak to you. I really love “Apples been ripe in my garden,” which speaks to me of the intimacy of a shared home and fruitful, gentle, slow-growing love. Another popular image that this poem uses is Christ’s wounded side as a particular emblem of love, as the bridal chamber where consummation occurs.

The image is the most erotic of the poem. Again, the poet participates in a distinct tradition of medieval spirituality: the imagery of Christ’s wounds were often used in spiritual writings to demonstrate the depths of his love. On the basic level, Christ’s wounded side opens up to shelter the soul and to signify the union of wills through erotic spiritual marriage. 

Other medieval theologians, poets, and artists take it a step further. This image inverts the traditional imagery of Christ as bridegroom and the soul as the bride by portraying Christ as the one who is, for lack of a better term, being penetrated. Such wounding is literal; after all, Christ is pierced by a spear on the cross. But inspired by the Song of Songs and using erotic imagery to describe spiritual ecstasy and unity with Christ, many medieval writers and artists saw theological importance in Christ taking on the traditionally “submissive,” feminine role of being pierced with love. The pain of mutual submission and the ecstasy of love are drawn together. Perhaps you are thinking maybe this is an accident, like the time my mother used a sexually explicit term to describe something. We never stopped mocking her for it (sorry Mom!). But this parallel is no accident. It’s not even a Freudian slip. It is completely blatant. Look at these images of Christ’s wound from medieval manuscripts. I have posted them below. The wound is drawn like a vagina! Some of these illustrations, mostly from medieval prayer books called “Books of Hours,” even draw the church emerging from the wound, just as in a vaginal birth.

Wound of Christ — Psalter and Prayer Book of Bonne de Luxembourg, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Cloisters Collection
Unknown artist, Arma Christi and Christ’s Side Wound, about 1373, tempera and gold leaf on parchment. Bodleian Library (MS Auct.D.4.4), Oxford
French Gothic Bible Moralisée, ca 1225 — Jesus “births” the church, “Ecclesia”

What are we to do with all these images of Jesus our Intimate Lover, including some shocking ones? Can you imagine them in use by Christians today?! As I have urged in the past, it’s important to pay attention to the places in these ancient texts and images that cause discomfort or confusion, as they are often places that can helpfully challenge our assumptions today of who God is or what Christianity should look like.

My discomfort has been on my mind as I’ve read these texts. I grew up in the 90s, at the height of the American Evangelical church in which I was raised. I remember reading books as a teen about being “God’s princess,” his beautiful beloved, an image I disliked even at that time. Being in a romantic or erotic relationship with Jesus turned me off, pun intended. Especially one where I was this sweet, feminine, romantic young girl. The medieval Jesus as Lover absolutely crushes many of the neat cultural boxes of the Christianity I grew up in. The sexuality is blatant. The image is messy: it focuses on the pain of love as well as the bliss, and many of the representations sound like teenagers with an unbearable crush. Christ takes on both traditionally male and female characteristics in his expressions of love for us. Defying many of the cultural mores of heterosexual marriage, mutual submission, sacrifice, and consent take center stage. 

Gregory the Great wrote above that this erotic representation of Christ is merciful, because it adapts our “shameful loves” to divine language of love. Jesus stoops to us and speaks to us in a language we can understand and embrace in our human limitations, which is of course true, though we would now excise the shameful stigma that medieval folks attach to sexuality. But instead of this language only going one way, using shameful love’s vocabulary to create holy love, I believe that it also illustrates the truth, beauty, and power of embodied love. Embodied, erotic love is a dim mirror into which we can gaze to catch a glimpse of the infinitely greater flaming love of the Incarnate God. And this love is not saccharine sweet, like being God’s precious princess; it is actually like sex in the context of loving intimacy, as in marriage. Human to human, mutual submission feels like a risk as you reveal your naked body, your vulnerability, to your lover. Intimacy entails a surrender of your strength and your cherished individuality as you attend to another body. And in that reveal, in a loving and true human relationship as with the divine, you are miraculously met by adoration and passion. 

A final note: most of the writers who loved this metaphor were celibate monks, nuns, and mystical writers. You don’t have to be sexually experienced to be able to enter into this language and knowledge of Jesus the Lover. Let’s not mistake the state of erotic partnership in marriage as a necessary qualification for being a great Christian, as it so often feels today in many Christian circles. Now I’ll leave you with some questions for your Lent practice this week:

What makes you uncomfortable about the medieval portrayal of Jesus as our Lover? Why? What do you appreciate about it? Which of the writers I’ve shared is your favorite? How does this image of Christ as our Lover speak to you about relationship? Relationship with Jesus is at times tightly tied to certain forms of contemporary American Christianity and feels a little tainted. How can this image of redeemed intimacy coming from 1000+ years ago help us today to conceptualize relationship with Jesus? 

Talk about your thoughts with a friend. If you want, share this blog and create conversations. Next week, we will think together about Jesus the Brave Knight.

3 thoughts on “Jesus Our Lover: Margery Kempe, Gregory the Great, and Lyric Poetry

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